If you want to create a sustainable yoga practice, you’ll need to take care of your body as you unravel old patterns of flawed posture and emotional tension. Joint pain, dizziness and cramps are common complaints, especially among beginning yogis who don’t know what level of discomfort, if any, might be appropriate. At the same time, it can be confusing when a teacher says, “Find your edge,” or “Breathe into discomfort.” It also may be tempting to dismiss your pain when everyone around you looks blissed out and confident. But only you can know what you’re feeling, and whether you’re a new or sustaining yogi, it’s important to pay attention to the line between discomfort and injury.
Joint pain is a signal that a posture is harmful. Over time and with consistent practice, some yogis may find joint pain disappears. For example, yogis who experience pain in the knee during Pigeon Pose may find consistent practice in Supine Pigeon Pose (sometimes called Eye of the Needle) opens the ligaments, tendons and muscles connected to the knee. By listening to their bodies and practicing patience, they are gradually able to practice Pigeon Pose without straining or paining. The important thing here is to discontinue any pose that causes joint pain, and this may mean practicing variations indefinitely.
Pain where bones come together—wrists, hips, knees and spine—is an indication that the body is not being appropriately lengthened or strengthened in a pose. One of the many purposes of yoga is to establish relaxation and healing in body and mind. Joint pain is a message from your body that something about the pose is not beneficial at this time. If you experience joint pain, back off of the pose and ask the instructor about alternatives. If joint pain persists, talk with your healthcare provider.
Yogis sometimes experience dizziness when practicing postures where the head is below the heart, such as Downward Facing Dog or Standing Forward Bend. First, notice if you hold your breath during challenging postures, which would mean insufficient oxygen. It’s important to inhale as you rise from any posture where the head is below the heart.
Ujjayi, the yogic deep breathing practiced in most classes, can sometimes cause a deficiency of carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn can cause lightheadedness. Slow your breath and inhale at least as long as you exhale.
Certain postures, such as backbends, can constrict the arteries of the neck if the chest is not properly lifted. For beginning yogis, backbends and pranayama, yogic breathing exercises, should be practiced under the guidance of a qualified instructor. Tell your instructor if you feel lightheaded or dizzy during your practice. You need adequate hydration and blood sugar to sustain you through your practice, so drink plenty of water, and while you don’t want to practice on a full stomach, be sure to consume enough calories throughout the day. If dizziness continues, consult your physician.
Muscle cramps are a common complaint when starting yoga or ramping up an existing practice. Cramps have several causes and are often eradicated by dietary changes and adequate hydration. Deficiencies in potassium, calcium, magnesium or B vitamins can cause muscle fatigue and cramping. The best sources of vitamins and minerals are organic fruits and vegetables, but a high-quality multivitamin may be needed as well. It also helps to drink at least two liters of water each day. Some medications are also known to cause cramping.
Muscle cramps, unlike joint pain, can be a place to compassionately explore your edge. You can breathe into or through muscle cramps as much as you feel comfortable.
Yoga is a discipline of both mind and body. If your practice feels like punishment, back off and talk with your instructor. You may also want to switch to a slower class or a different kind of yoga, such as Iyengar or Restorative Yoga, where you’ll find more focus on stretching, lengthening and healing than is typical in, for example, Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga.
This article is a part of the Our Fragile Planet April/May 2016 issue of Whole Life Times.